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Removing Each Child from Health Coverage – a Rite of Passage

Following college graduation this past May, my daughter, Maria, took a position with a non-profit organization in Minneapolis. As parents, Deb and I are both proud and happy to watch our youngest daughter start a new chapter in her post-graduate life.  As a rite of passage, Maria was confronted with a plethora of decisions to make regarding the benefits offered by her new employer.

This also meant she would no longer be covered under our health plan, an important and necessary parental commitment that most of us provide to our children. In a strange way, at least for me, this was an end of an era – 24-plus years to be more precise. Our oldest daughter, Emma, was removed from our health plan earlier due to her full-time position and the associated benefits tied to it.

As parents, ‘letting go’ can mean different things. With both daughters, while teaching them to ride newly-purchased toddler bikes, we took them to a traffic-free smoothly-paved parking lot to begin lessons. Watching their progress balancing on the bike was impressive, as if our little Einsteins were able to crack the code that few were able to do! The hardest part, however, was coming to the realization they could balance without our assistance. Letting go of the bike and allowing our child to carry on without Mom and Dad was a gut-wrenching parental experience, even though we were only a step or two away to avoid potential catastrophe!

Taking our girls to ‘mother’s morning out’ was yet another rite of passage for us. Dropping the unsuspecting daughter off at a play ‘school’ to be with other children for just a few hours was an emotional struggle. More so for us, I must confess. The same applies for kindergarten, grade school, junior high, high school, and eventually college. Yes, as our daughters became older, Mom (or Dad) would no longer be standing outside the classroom door to observe how our girls were adapting to the new learning environment. We instinctively knew that the days were numbered as time was quickly marching on.

Parents experience gentle reminders on how past roles we once held evolve into new opportunities and/or challenges for what lies ahead. The same, I suppose, also applies to our professional lives. With each child, we are nudged by the circumstances they experience, knowing that their lives will forever be different as they transition into productive adults.

I had to remind myself that by removing each daughter from our health insurance plan was similar to letting go of their bike and allowing them to explore the unknown world ahead. We can only hope that whatever course each daughter pursues will be a safe journey.

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Three Key Health Plan Comparisons Between Iowa and U.S.

Three important health plan components that are first and foremost on the minds of employers when assessing their annual plan offerings, include: health premiums, employee health coverage contribution and deductibles employees are required to pay. It is natural, therefore, to compare Iowa averages to national norms, thanks largely to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Employer Health Benefits Survey, which was just released on September 25. Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) is a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, CA.

Brief Survey Background

Since the year 1999, the KFF has been performing their national survey of employer health plans, the same year that we began our Iowa Employer Benefits Study©. For the record, there was no particular reason that 1999 was the base year used by KFF and our organization, but speaking for myself, I’m happy that we can use the annual KFF study as a measuring stick to our statewide annual results.

Before I share the graphic comparisons, I must comment that surveys can vary from one another using slightly different methodologies, and there is no exception with the two studies being compared in this blog. The largest difference is that KFF is a national survey, which in 2019, randomly-selected 2,012 non-federal public and private organizations with three or more employees. Additionally, KFF asked another 2,383 organizations a single question about offering health coverage.

The Iowa Employer Benefits Study© is a statewide-only survey. Each year, we seek to have at least 1,000 organizations participate.  These organizations are randomly-selected to ensure that results will reflect the overall population of organizations within Iowa. Although we survey employers with at least two employees, we do not actively randomly-select organizations with 2 to 10 employees. During the survey process, however, if respondents fall into this size category due to downsizing, we will include their data within our report.

It is important to note that Iowa organizations can also be surveyed by KFF, but the number is considerably fewer than our goal of 1,000 organizations. In 2019, for example, KFF surveyed 612 organizations in 12 midwestern states, including Iowa, which averages out to 51 organizations for each state. This Midwest average is consistent with prior KFF surveys.

Health Plan Premiums

Since we released our study in early August, we learned that Iowa employer-sponsored health premiums increased by 7.1 percent during the past year, which is slightly higher than the KFF national average increase of 3.4 percent for single and 5 percent for family coverages. One explanation for this variance between surveys can be that KFF may have compared the actual premium change from 2018 to 2019 – AFTER plan design changes were made. Our survey, however, asked Iowa employers to share their rate adjustments (e.g. increase, decrease, no change) during the past year BEFORE plan design changes were made – subtle difference, but important.

The annual KFF single premium in 2019 is $7,188, which is merely $171 higher than the average Iowa single premium of $7,017. Statistically speaking, the single premiums are in a dead heat with each other. As for family premiums, the KFF premium is now at $20,576, which is $1,241 higher (or 6.4 percent) than Iowa’s $19,335. We often hear that Iowa’s medical costs are lower than the national averages, which is a true statement. However, it does appear with the latest data available, Iowa is inching closer to the national premium averages.

Since 1999, health premiums from both studies show very similar results when it comes to growth. Below is a graphic that superimposes the KFF premiums to the annual Iowa history of single and family premiums. The premium increases are staggering for both, but equally horrific is that the Iowa premiums (both single and family) have increased slightly higher compared to the national norms (denoted in green font).Employee Contribution as a Percentage of Premium

As the health premiums change each year, usually through increases, employers are forced to make decisions on how much to shift this increased cost to employees, most often through health plan design changes and having the employee assume more of the premium burden. One way to measure just how much the employer wishes the employee to assume is illustrated in the graphic below.

From this graphic, Iowa organizations and their national counterparts are nearly identical as to the percentage of the total premium that is assumed by employees for both single and family coverages. For single coverage, Iowa employees pay 19 percent of the total single premium, while employees elsewhere contribute 18 percent of the single cost. As for family coverage, employees in both Iowa and national organizations identically pay 30 percent of the total family cost.Single Health Deductibles

KFF’s report shows that, on a national basis, the average single deductible is $1,655, which is $537 lower than the Iowa average of $2,192. Part of this difference may be explained in the composition of small employers participating in each survey. As we know from previous results, smaller employers are less likely to control their health costs when compared to larger, more sophisticated employers – employers that have more tools at their disposal to keep their rates down (e.g. administration costs, self-insuring, etc).

Perhaps a larger mix of smaller employers in the Iowa study could very well influence the overall deductible averages being higher – however, this is pure speculation. NOTE: Family deductibles were excluded in this comparison due to insufficient historical data from KFF.

The following graphic displays how Iowa single deductibles compare to national norms.Conclusion

In past years, the KFF results most always demonstrated higher national health premiums compared to Iowa. However, despite higher premiums, employees in the U.S. paid, on average, a similar percentage for their health premiums than Iowans, except for family coverage, where they paid a lower percentage compared to Iowans. In 2019, however, Iowans have ‘regressed to the mean’ and now appear to be paying a similar percentage of the premium for both single and family coverages.

Despite having lower premiums, Iowa workers are asked to pay higher deductibles compared to their national counterparts, which makes paying for medical services a bit more challenging each year. Tracking these key components are vital to learning how Iowans fare with the rest of the country, and it appears that Iowa is becoming ‘more the norm’ in some of these components.

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Proposed Healthcare Merger a Charade?

Strengthening patient choices of hospitals and physicians through competition is imperative. Promoting cost and quality transparency so employers, consumers and policymakers have access to this meaningful information is equally important.

With this in mind, I wrote the following Op-Ed that was published by the Des Moines Register on September 14.

The proposed merger between two major Midwestern hospital systems, Sanford Health and UnityPoint Health, is deeply troublesome for two key reasons – cost and health outcomes.

For 20 years, I have researched employee benefits in Iowa, including healthcare costs paid by employers and their employees. Since 1999, Iowa employer premiums have skyrocketed by 240 percent (single) and 251 percent (family). Today’s annual Iowa family premium is about $20,000. In 10 years, assuming a five-year average increase of 7.6 percent and no benefit changes are made, the family premium growth could compound to $40,596 (see graphic below).

Over this same 20-year period, Iowa health plan deductibles have increased dramatically, with the average family deductible reaching almost $4,000, with no relief in sight.

Despite the elevated costs paid by Iowans, the level of care received is equally troublesome. The care Iowans receive for the egregious prices we pay suggests we are not receiving commensurate value. With a scarcity of patient information on Iowa health outcomes, we performed the first-of-its-kind study on Iowans’ experiences with the medical care they received – specifically regarding medical errors.

The results we found were stunning. One-fifth of randomly-surveyed Iowans in 2017 indicated they or someone close to them experienced a medical error while seeking care during the previous five years. Of those, 60 percent indicated the error had ‘serious health consequences’ while another 23 percent reported ‘minor health consequences.’ Iowans also incurred serious financial consequences, as a result.

On the surface, the Sanford-UnityPoint proposed merger is touted to be a win-win for these two regional non-profit giants and for the payers of care, including the patients covered in the respective markets. We’re led to believe that such mergers will broaden “access to care” and “increase efficiency” which will help “lower costs and improve care.” These symbiotic relationships generated by mergers may sound intuitive, even for those who regulate anticompetitive business practices, such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general.

But the devil is in the details, and substantiated results of these details show a clearly different, and problematic story that must become public.

The proposed Sanford-UnityPoint merger would amass 76 hospitals, outpatient and long-term-care services across 26 states – employing 2,600 physicians and 83,000 staff. It would be among the top 15 largest nonprofit health systems in the U.S. and have more than $11 billion in combined operating revenue. In 2018, the combined operating income of both non-profit organizations was nearing $213 million.

Nationally, hospital and health system mergers and acquisitions have increased from 38 in 2003 to 115 in 2017. Hospitals account for nearly 33 percent of all healthcare spending – the largest portion of overall health expenditures in the U.S.  Studies have shown that consolidation is more about enhancing bargaining power that health providers have with payers, such as insurance companies and self-funded employers – and less about integration to reduce costs and provide better, safer care.

Provider consolidation serves as a ploy – leveraging its bargaining prowess with third-party payers to ensure favorable prices – resulting in hefty profits for additional acquisitions. Larger, more market-concentrated hospital systems eventually hold payors hostage by refusing to participate in the covered network of providers unless they receive favorable price increases.

Two renowned experts on this subject, Drs. Martin Gaynor and Robert Town, have frequently found that hospital mergers in concentrated markets result in significant price increases, most exceeding 20 percent. In Iowa, Sanford and UnityPoint would most likely seek to leverage a higher-fee reimbursement from private payers which would only increase the 10-year premium projection mentioned earlier. This behavior is detrimental to the well-being of most Iowans and those insured in other areas under this merger’s footprint.

Our antitrust policies must hold hospital market power in check. Attorney General Tom Miller has a long history of using anti-trust laws to protect Iowans – from fighting big tobacco to reigning in Google. Governor Kim Reynolds has made access to rural health care one of her central issues. Both Governor Reynolds and Attorney General Miller must review this merger to ensure that Iowans won’t pay more for less.

Without this, Iowans and others will continue to pay dearly by allowing this charade to continue.

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